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The Jazz Artistry of Ron Thomas: Interfacing Jazz and Classical Music

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Sir Roland Hanna.

RT: A supreme jazz pianist. But too few people know that he is a thoroughly classical musician who studied Piano and Composition at Julliard. I was going to study with Barry Harris, but Herbie Hancock convinced me to study with Roland instead who was perfect for me as I continued to try to forge a connection for myself between jazz and modern classical musical techniques''..

AAJ: Igor Stravinsky.

RT: I compose the same way Stravinsky did- pecking it out a note at a time at the piano, constructing it piece by piece, layer by layer as I go along. I have probably analyzed more of his music than I have anybody else's .

AAJ: Stefan Wolpe.

RT: Stefan's work straddles the 'old moderns' and the 'post WWII crowd.' I tried to appropriate his way of thinking.

AAJ: You had a close association with the innovative composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. How did this association come about, and how did it influence you?

RT: I discovered his music somewhere around 1958 or '59 through the famous Robert Craft recording of 'Zeitmasse' for wind quintet. After I graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, I learned Stockhausen was going to be in Philadelphia in the Spring of 1964. I just appeared in his class at the University of Pennsylvania. He was substituting for George Rochberg for a semester.(Rochberg was teaching at the University of Buffalo that semester as a guest lecturer.) I just latched myself onto him. I told him, 'I sold everything I had and came here!' He liked that. His eyes widened. 'Ah, a true artist!' he said. He was a young man still- 36, and I was 24. He gave me a direct insight into the post-World War II musical thinking in Europe. I absolutely adored him. He was a fascinating person. But he was also way too much of a 'blinding light' in a way- I needed to recover from him- a bit too charismatic.

AAJ: Can you give our readers a sense of what Stockhausen did for music.

RT: New forms of expression, new feelings. Miles Davis called it 'bettering the forms of music'. Berlioz called it 'endowing music with new actions.'

AAJ: Was Miles into classical music?

RT: Oh yes, he was. He had his own special kind of thing with it.

AAJ: You mention Ludmila Ulehla.

RT: She is a composer and was a student of Vittorio Giannini's at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1950's. About two years after she graduated, they hired her on the faculty where she taught for many years. Dave Liebman is a big fan of hers. He republished her book, Contemporary Harmony: Romanticism through the Twelve-Tone Row (Advance Music), which made the rounds in the form of xeroxed copies when it went out of print some years ago. Many jazz musicians looked it over pretty carefully. Ludmila is a very historically important composition teacher.

AAJ: You mentioned that pianist Bill Evans had a profound influence. What's your own summation of Evans' contribution to jazz?

RT: When I heard, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, it astonished me, as did also the first Conversations with Myself album, and later Columbia's The Bill Evans Album. For me, Bill Evans and Miles Davis are mountains! They're massive and formative. I was intoxicated by the depth of Bill's lyricism, the ingenuity of his harmonies, the suppleness of all those rhythms. When I listen to his best recordings, it's like listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, 'The Well Tempered Clavier.' I wonder, how did he do it? The profundity of that lyricism! Curiously, Bill and I were both part Welsh, and both from Northern New Jersey. I heard him and Miles a lot between 1965 and 1970 at the Vanguard and the Top of the Gate. In the summer of 1970 Evans played with Marty Morell and Eddie Gomez all summer long at the Top of the Gate. My connection with jazz is really through Evans and Davis.

AAJ: Were you at all familiar with Lennie Tristano?

RT: Yes, I was. He was a groundbreaker like Parker and Gillespie. A reporter once tried to get Charlie Parker to say something bad about Tristano. Parker set him straight pretty quick. The innovators really welcomed Tristano.

AAJ: Why did he fade into the background?

RT: A quirk of history, really. He did play quite a bit in Europe. He also became known as an educator- many musicians studied with him. And I think that became a part of his persona- that he was a teacher. Tristano was a marvelous player as well. There's a videotape of a live concert with him, and it is unbelievable. I like his solo playing the best. Very mystical. And very instructive. That rhythmic interrelationship between the bass part and his solo lines really incorporates the very essence of what the concept of bebop really is.

AAJ: Here's a tough one. On your website, you imply that music 'should be of its own essence, free of influence, history, and culture.' You use Berlioz as an example. How can you make such a statement? It's clear to anyone that all music is profoundly a product of time and place.

RT: Yes, I understand that'.. but what I oppose is a specific evolutionary form of aesthetic philosophy sometimes called 'historicism' which says that in music the chronology of art works must fulfill a preordained historical destiny. I believe this is nonsense. Berlioz responded quickly to this 19th century monster of a doctrine. His was the first and strongest reaction to that deadening philosophy which says 'Destroy the old, and start new.' Take Stockhausen, for instance, who said, and probably still believes, 'Everything starts with Webern. We don't care about anything before then. If your music resembles anything before Webern, it is of absolutely no importance to us.' I disagree entirely. I say, 'Let's have everything available to us.' As Chopin said, 'I help myself abundantly from the laws of freedom'. Quite a different idea.

AAJ: That sounds like composer George Rochberg's philosophy. [Rochberg had a profound influence on pianist Uri Caine; see AAJ interview with Caine].

RT: Stravinsky too. Like Berlioz , Stravinsky said something like, 'I don't have any ancestors.'

AAJ: So what you're saying is that we need to utilize history and culture in our own way rather than rejecting it or worshiping it. The newness comes from how you use the influences.

Let's go a bit deeper into this. Now, here's some musical notation from your website. Give us a little education.

RT: That's from my pre-jazz composing. I wrote that work soon after I had finished my studies with Stockhausen, and was struggling to make some sense out of it in my composing. It's a classy example of 'graphic notation'. Cage experimented very beautifully with this sort of thing.

These are cluster shapes. Some of them might be black keys, others white keys, or both.

AAJ: So this is a type of composition where the exact notes are not determined?

RT: Yes, you're right. They are note-clusters.

AAJ: There are no measures.

RT: There are no measures, but you could use the relative distances as a way of judging the time frame.

AAJ: So, like jazz, each performance might be different, it would never be quite the same?

RT: Yes.

AAJ: You mention Berlioz, Liszt. You consider Berlioz a 'free spirit.' Many modern composers and jazz artists have, in a sense, rejected the nineteenth century classical and romantic music. Why does this particular century impress you?

RT: Well, when we look back, there's not as radical a break between classical/romantic and modern music as there once seemed to be. Schoenberg and Stravinsky are two of what I call 'the old moderns.' Bartok and Hindemith, as well. In the early part of the century, a polarity emerged between Schoenberg, more 'evolutionary,' building on the past while moving away from it, and Stravinsky, who opposed this 'historicism' approach. So there was a little 'war' between the two that never got resolved.

What I believe, in contrast to the prevailing view, is that in reality there is no substantive difference between the nineteenth and twentieth century. 'Modern' music begins with Beethoven. Russian poet and writer, Joseph Brodsky, who came to live in New York, said, 'You know, a piano sonata by Beethoven can serve as the soundtrack for any of the Star Wars films.' That says it all for me. The world that Beethoven created back then is part of the modern sensibility with which I can identify. So, I don't see that big a dichotomy between 19th and 20th century music and don't think I'm alone in that.

AAJ: Let's come back to jazz. You've been a figure on the Philadelphia jazz scene for almost thirty years. What have been some of your most enjoyable gigs, and which musicians have you found most productive and fulfilling to work with?

RT: The longest lasting relationships I've had have been, for example, Pat Martino, but not so much playing with him but as a very close personal friend and confidante. Then there's a drummer that I've been working with for many years now, Joe Mullen, one of the best innovative musicians I've ever known'.he worked with me on The House of Counted Days . We've done many sessions together. Outstanding. John Swana. Tyrone Brown, Bill Hollis, Eddy Battles, Pearl Williams, and Bobby Durham (what a marvelous time I had with him). Benny Nelson, Bobby Blackwell, bass players who've passed away. Intriguing people every one, and marvelous players'

AAJ: What clubs do you play at these days?

RT: Well, I don't play in Philly much these days. I've played at Chris' Jazz Caf', however, with perecussionist Bob Brosh, a faculty member of the University of the Arts. Currently, I play out here in the suburbs of Philadelphia: The Rose Tree Inn in Media, the Mendenhall Inn in Chadds Ford, and Sullivan's in King of Prussia, where I play Sundays and Mondays.

Getting back to the philosophy, I really regard jazz and classical music as being in the same category. I see jazz as a subspecies of 20th century music. Jazz is essentially a form of modern music, along with Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schoenberg, etc..

AAJ: I reviewed a book entitled Jazz Modernism. The author shows the interplay between jazz and modern art. Some modern artists such as Matisse and Alexander Calder collected jazz recordings and referenced them in their paintings and sculptures. Maybe there's a book waiting to be written about the connection- even deeper- between classical and jazz music. I think of Stravinsky, Bernstein'

RT: And Darius Milhaud. Exactly right.

AAJ: It's interesting that both jazz and classical music began as forms of entertainment. (Classical music a la Haydn and Mozart derived in part from music that was played between the acts of theatrical dramas.) Duke Ellington was certainly one of the greatest modern composers. Dave Liebman explores new territories of modern music.

RT: Absolutely. You have a feel for this kind of sensibility and connection.

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